One thing as a GT/Sportscar fan I would say is that one of my main reasons for loving the sport is that you can find a race anywhere in the field.
A race that means just as much to the teams involved as winning outright and often a race that has just as much quality as the one going on at the front. An exemplary example of this multi-class format is that of Super GT. GT500 may have the super high tech and astoundingly fast factory chargers but back in GT300 there is just as much to shout about.
With an opening round grid of 28 cars it cannot be ignored. As with many championships all over the world, GT300 has benefitted massively from the success and accessibility of GT3 cars. Added to that are the handful of factory supported Japanese hybrid specials and new for this year the GT300 mother chassis, a stock car which can be re-bodied by the team. With 13 different marques represented the class also provides one of my other loves for our sport, variety.
Round 1 Okayama
Pole went to the #10 Nissan GT-R of Andre Couto and Katsumasa Chiyo joined on the front row by team Gainer’s other car the Mercedes SLS of Katsuyuki Hiranaka and Bjorn Wirdheim. At the start of the race though, with the weather drying, the Mercedes decided to start on slicks. It was a decision that sent the car tumbling down the field when the race got going; the track was just not dry enough yet.
One car that was enjoying the conditions though was the #31 Toyota Prius GT. The Japanese hybrid moving from 5th to 1st inside the first couple of laps. The changeable conditions clearly suited the Prius as it held on for a dominant win. Behind the Prius one of the Honda CR-Zs came home in 2nd.
The final place on the podium going to the #21 Audi R8 of Richard Lyons and Tomonobu Fuji. Pole sitters Couto and Chiyo struggled in the conditions and brought their GT-R home back in 7th.
Round 2 Fuji
After their dominant performance at Okayama the #31 Prius squad followed up with pole position at Fuji. The Nissan GT-R GT3s showed great pace again in qualifying, two of them were just a couple of tenths back in 2nd and 3rd on the grid.
From the start the top 4 pulled out a gap to the rest of the field. Up front was the pole sitting Prius with the #3 Nissan, #11 Mercedes SLS and #10 Nissan in close proximity. An early race safety car on lap 8 led to some shaking up of strategies.
When the order had settled down after the first stops Katsumasa Chiyo found himself in the lead in the #10 Nissan and he was pulling away.
Behind him was the #3 Nissan that had taken the Prius on the road. The Prius seemed to be struggling for pace during the middle of the race as the #11 Mercedes of Bjorn Wirdheim and Katsuyuki Hiranaka had also taken the Toyota to sit 3rd.
With the race nearing the end Couto and Chiyo had driven brilliantly and were cruising up front but behind them the #3 Nissan had also seemed comfortable in 2nd but suffered a puncture early in the lap losing them a chunk of time and dropping them to 4th. That dropped them back behind the Prius and the #11 SLS.
The last few laps saw an epic battle between these two cars with Kazuki Hoshino in the delayed #3 car chasing them down and quickly. With just a couple of laps remaining achieved what had looked impossible and got himself on the rear bumper of the Mercedes. With the superior grip from his newer tyres Hoshino first took Wirdheim and then Saga in the Prius. Wirdheim also followed him through to take the final spot on the podium.
In finishing 4th though the Prius squad held on to the championship lead.
Round 3 Thailand
Thailand saw the first pole position for the new Super GT mother chassis. One of the examples bodied as a Toyota GT86 in the hands of Takeshi Tsuchiya and Takemitsu Matsui took pole just 7 hundredths ahead of the Nissan of Hoshino and Takaboshi. Back in 3rd once again was the #10 Nissan of Couto and for this race due to other commitments Chiyo was replaced by Ryuichiro Tomita.
From the start Hoshino in the #3 Nissan got a great run down into the first few corners and took the lead. A few corners later Couto took the GT86 too making it a Nissan 1-2 before the end of the 2nd lap. Hoshino though was not hanging around for a battle. He was disappearing ever further down the road.Hoshino pulled out to a lead of around 15 seconds a lead that he and later in the race his teammate Takaboshi just nursed until the end coming home for a relatively comfortable win.
Back in 2nd the #10 Nissan had a relatively quiet race too coming home with a good gap between them and 3rd. 3rd position was where the late drama came from though. The mother chassis GT86 – #25 – which had taken pole and held on to 3rd for much of the race came under pressure from a hard-charging Jorg Muller in the #7 BMW Z4. The Z4 which had been an ever-present at the front of the field last year was showing signs of the pace that had seen them nearly take the title last year.
The veteran German made his way past the GT86, soon after though things got worse for the pole sitting car as they developed a fuel flow problem. By the time they rejoined they had dropped to 7th.
So another 1-2 of Nissan GT-Rs and it was certainly starting to look like it was the chassis to beat.
Round 4 Fuji
Qualifying saw new faces at the top of the time sheets with the Honda CR-Z #55 of Shinichi Takagi and Takashi Kobayashi taking pole. This was another car that had shown great pace at times last year but reliability and consistency had prevented a title tilt.
Joining them on the front row was one of an army of Mercedes SLS GT3s, the #65 car driven by Haruki Kurosawa and Nagoya Gamou. It was a Qualifying to forget for early season title hopefuls. The Prius had managed 3rd, but the two pacey Nissans were way down the order in 11th and 16th appearing to struggle with the extra weight success had forced them to take on.
The race was a fairly simple one for the pole-sitters. It was a lead they never lost and only a late issue with temperature inside the car tainted the pole to flag victory.
Behind the CR-Z was a real scrap for 2nd though with as many as ten cars looking like they could take a podium position at points throughout the race. The car that had sat in 2nd for much of the race and had looked most likely to join the CR-Z squad on the podium was the #7 BMW squad of Muller and Ara. However their hopes were dashed with a late clash with a back marker damaging the car too much to carry on once the car had reached the pits.
Up stepped the #65 SLS which finished where it started in 2nd. The final podium position went to another Mercedes the #11 Hiranaka and Wirdheim car.
Round 5 Suzuka
Qualifying saw yet another different pole sitter this time in the form of the only mother chassis not to be bodied as a GT86. The #2 car bodied instead as a Lotus Evora, the lotus took pole from The #10 Nissan and back in 3rd was the #7 BMW of Muller and Ara.
In the early stages the Lotus pulled away and gave itself a 20-second lead before the first round of stops with the #7 BMW and a group including the CR-Z, the Prius, the #61 Subaru BRZ and the #88 Lamborghini Gallardo all battling for 2nd. Early on the #10 Nissan had changed to an alternative strategy to try and combat the success ballast deficit. They opted to try and run in cleaner air by pitting earlier rather than killing their tyres and further hindering fuel consumption by battling close quarters.
The story of the middle of the race was one of incidents and penalties. First of all an incident involving the #50 Mercedes left debris on the circuit and the car needed recovering which brought out the safety car. This incident led to frantic changes in strategy. The first car to be cruelly effected was the Lotus. They pitted but had missed that the pit lane was shut. this led to a 90 second penalty which ended any hopes of them winning. A cruel twist of fate given their early race dominance. Another car to be given a penalty was the #7 BMW which received a less severe penalty for the car crossing the white line on the exit of the pit lane.
With these penalties and the shake up from various pit strategies this left the #55 CR-Z in the lead but it was short lived. First like several other cars the leader spun off at the fast 1st corner. Although #55 rejoined in the lead it was becoming apparent that there was some kind of spillage between the final corner and the 2nd corner which brought the safety car out again. When the safety car was withdrawn it appeared the spin had damaged the CR-Zs tires as it just couldn’t hold the pace it had previously shown. Past it came the #88 Lamborghini, the #31 Prius and the #61 Subaru. Then came another penalty. The Prius had spun on the spillage during the safety car, an incident that had been deemed dangerous and thus #31 was given a penalty dropping the team out of the race for the lead.
When the leaders made their 3rd stops it was the turn of the hard charging #10 Nissan to take the lead. The decision to put the car on an alternative strategy early on appeared to have paid off. Also recovering well from their earlier penalty was the #7 BMW crew who now found themselves 3rd behind the Subaru who had got by the Lamborghini in the pits.
As the race drew to a close Muller was all over the rear end of Chiyo in the Nissan. The BMW could close up in the corners with the Nissan heavily weighed down by ballast but on the straights the Nissan was a rocket ship. Chiyo held on and is beginning to get a reputation of holding on against the odds at the end of blue ribbon events after his heroics at Bathurst and now in the Suzuka 1000Km. Muller finished a creditable 2nd given their earlier delays and back in 3rd was the #61 Subaru.
The win also gave the Nissan a massive lead in the points standings, they were going to be very tough to beat with just three races to go.
Round 6 Sugo
Qualifying saw Japanese marques lock out the front two rows. Unexpectedly though none of the were Nissans. The championship leading #10 car suffering on single lap pace with the now enormous amount of success ballast. Pole instead went to the #55 CR-Z joined on the front row by the pole car from back in Thailand the #25 GT86. The 2nd row saw the Prius joined by a 2nd example of the mother chassis in GT86 form. Championship leader Couto was back in 8th.
For the first few laps of the race the top four held station in close quarters but on lap 7, the #25 moved past the CR-Z and into the lead and the CR-Z appeared to be struggling with the early race pace as it dropped back down the field to 5th.
As the pit stop window came round there was an incident between two GT500 cars signalling the best opportunity to make a stop and lose very little time. After the stops had been completed and the field settled down the GT86 had pulled out a solid 20 second lead from the #88 Lamborghini that had benefitted from a speedy pit stop to overtake the Prius.
In the closing stages the Lambo struggled for pace and the Prius got by to take 2nd. Unfortunately for the Lamborghini crew the podium was also snatched away in the last couple of laps as the #11 Mercedes made a late charge to make the last step on the podium after starting back in 11th. The championship leader Couto finished a solid 6th even with almost double the ballast of any other competitor.
Round 7 Autopolis
The penultimate qualifying of the season saw the Lotus take top spot once again but the final times for pole and 2nd could not have been closer only 1 thousandth of a second separating the Lotus and the Prius in 2nd. The #10 Nissan squad knew that finishing 1st or second in the race would clinch both titles but qualifying didn’t go their way as they found themselves back in 14th on the grid.
Before the race even got under way there was drama at the front of the field. The #88 Lamborghini, which had been turning in some decent performances in recent races, didn’t make the start with engine issues.
Another car that didn’t manage to make the start and had to start from the pits was the Prius which couldn’t take up it’s front row position due to a clutch problem only resolved moments before the start. Finally The previous race winners the #25 GT86 squad had engine concerns before the race which saw them getting to the grid very late, those concerns were confirmed when the car later retired on the 14th lap with engine trouble.
With all the drama leading up to the start the Lotus made use of the gaps on the grid to take an easy lead into the first corner. As happened in Suzuka, the #2 Lotus once up front was pulling away at a steady pace. It wasn’t until the 2nd half of the race once the drivers had changed and the pit stops were out of the way that the Lotus began to feel pressure from behind.
It was in the form of the #3 Nissan that had started back in 8th. Hoshino had got the Nissan off to a good start getting them up to 5th by the stops and the pit crew had done their bit getting the car out in 2nd but now it was up to Takaboshi to chase down the lotus. Aided by the slightly wet nature of the track Takaboshi made light work of the gap and then made his move to take the lead. In the midst of chasing the the Nissan and trying to keep in the hunt for the win the lotus was struck by a back marker and the subsequent damage meant he couldn’t make it back to the pits.
Much like the #3 car the #10 had also flown up the order since the start. Couto who had started the car had taken it from 14th on the grid to 6th on the road by the pit stops and once again the Nissan crew had got the car out in super quick time to bring the car out just behind the #3 machine.
So with the demise of the Lotus the Nissans were running one and two. Chico brought the car home in 2nd despite some late pressure from the #7 BMW thus clinching the drivers title for Andre Couto and the teams title for Gainer.
The race win though went to the #3 Nissan their 2nd of the season highlighting that without their couple of retirements mid season they may have had a real shot at the title.
Round 8 Twin Ring Motegi
Although the championships had been decided there was no shortage of will to win the final round in front of yet another bumper crowd at Motegi.
Pole went to the Prius who were looking to prove that they would have won the championship had they not had such bad luck at Autopolis. The quickest of the SLS’ the #11 car joined the Prius on the front row as they also sought to highlight what might have been.
Come the race and it was a relatively straight forward victory for the Prius, they never really looked like relinquishing the lead once they had taken pole. Behind them though was a very intense battle between two of the Mercedes.
The #11 in the hands of Wirdheim and the #0 in the hands of Kataoka. The #0 squad who were last season’s drivers champions have struggled this season to get to grips with their new SLS after an off season change to Mercedes from their trusty BMW Z4 last season. However, a season’s worth of getting used to the car was coming to fruition now with them holding firm against the squad that first brought the SLS to Japan. Behind the two Mercedes was the #55 CR-Z which was contesting it’s final race after Honda’s announcement earlier in the season they will not continue to support the effort.
The only blip in the Prius’ race came just before they stopped. A safety car being deployed meaning that when Nakayama exited the pits he was back in 4th but with all the top four within 7 seconds of each other and the apparent pace of the Prius he made short work of the leading duo.
So as they crossed the line for the final time of the season, the Prius took the win just as they had in the first race of the season.
Just behind was the #0 Mercedes highlighting another tilt at the title might be on the cards for the team next year after a year with the Mercedes. 3rd was the #11 Mercedes team winners last year the constancy wasn’t quite there this year.
Their sister car, the Nissan GT-R, had been mighty all year and so Gainer had still taken the teams title but the Mercedes had not quite been on the pace of the Nissan all year. Back in 4th and just missing out on 1 final podium was the Honda CR-Z, a car and program that will be very much missed next season not least for it’s particularly eye catching colour scheme.
So another season came and went and the the level playing field between the different regulations has to be commended. Granted at times one set of regs seemed more dominant that the rest but by the next race they would be reigned in and parity would be restored. A fact highlighted by there being five different winners in eight races and at least on win was enjoyed by the hybrid specials, the GT3s and the mother chassis.
Not only that but throughout the season the grid numbers remained at 28 cars. How many championships can claim that? With a new breed of GT3 pack being made available next year and a clear interest in the formula in Japan this is a championship that is becoming more and more relevant to the manufacturers in Europe every year.
Roll on next season I say.